Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Yurok Loop and Hidden Beach

False Klamath Rock on the Yurok Loop
2 miles loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

While Redwood National Park is best known for its soaring forests containing the world's tallest trees, the park also protects a wild and spectacular stretch of Northern California's Pacific coast. The short hike from False Klamath to Hidden Beach via the Yurok Loop is an easy way for hikers to see the surf of the Pacific crashing against seastacks and washing onto rocky beaches. The Yurok Loop Trail is a reference to the Yurok People who have long inhabited the redwood forests near the mouth of the Klamath River. The loop is itself just a brief, mile-long hike, but it is far more rewarding to tack on an additional mile round-trip to visit Hidden Beach. No coast redwoods are visible on this hike, although you'll drive by plenty on the way to the trailhead. The shortest and easiest access to Hidden Beach is via a one-mile round trip hike from a trailhead off Highway 101 near Trees of Mystery, but accessing Hidden Beach via the Yurok Loop is far more scenic with nearly constant seaside scenery.

Redwood National Park is a long drive from any major metropolitan area, at over six hours of driving from the San Francisco Bay Area. Klamath, the town closest to the trailhead, is at a fairly central location in this elongated national park, falling roughly halfway between Orick on the south side of the park and Crescent City on the north side of the park. The Yurok Loop Trailhead lies 6 miles north of the town of Klamath at the Lagoon Creek Picnic Area, which is to the west side of Highway 101. Coming from the north, Lagoon Creek Picnic Area is reached soon after Highway 101 descends down the Last Chance Grade. There are pit toilets and parking for about 30 cars at the picnic area.

The Yurok Loop Trail starts at the northern end of the Lagoon Creek parking lot. The trail left the parking lot and delved into some shrubby woods, reaching a junction with the Coastal Trail in less than a hundred yards. The right fork of the Coastal Trail provided beach access and headed north, while the the left fork led towards the Yurok Loop; I took the left fork, crossing a low berm separating Lagoon Pond from the ocean. At two under two hundred yards from the trailhead, I came to the split for the Yurok Loop: I chose to hike the loop counterclockwise, taking the right fork to follow the coast first.

After taking the right fork for the Yurok Loop, the trail briefly followed a log-strewn lagoon separated from the Pacific by a sandy beach. In the distance, I could see Highway 101 beginning its climb up the Last Chance Grade to Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.

False Klamath Beach
The trail began a gentle uphill climb and reached a clearing with views down the coast in both directions just 150 yards after the start of the loop. This is perhaps the most scenic spot of the hike: massive seastacks dot the coastline in both directions and especially to the south, with the sweeping coastline visible all the way down to Sue-Meg State Park. Massive False Klamath Rock, a 200-foot seastack coated in guano, lay just offshore of the point at which I stood.

Surf crashing against the Klamath coast
Leaving the viewpoint, the trail continued south along the coast, dipping into the forest at times. At just over a half mile from the trailhead, I came to a junction where the Yurok Loop split from the Coastal Trail: while the Coastal Trail headed to the right along the coast towards Hidden Beach, the Yurok Loop headed left and inland into the forest back towards the trailhead. While I would later return on the Yurok Loop, I took the Coastal Trail at this junction to continue towards Hidden Beach.

False Klamath Rock and a rocky cove
The Coastal Trail mainly stayed in a Sitka Spruce forest as it headed south towards Hidden Beach, but it broke out onto an open grassy slope with views of Hidden Beach ahead at about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. This stretch of trail was quite scenic and was an excellent vantage point for the waves crashing against the rugged seastacks off the coast of Hidden Beach.

View towards Hidden Beach
At a mile from the trailhead, the spur trail to Hidden Beach split off to the right from the Coastal Trail, near where the separate access trail from Trees of Mystery met the Coastal Trail. The spur descended briefly but steeply through a tunnel of vegetation to reach Hidden Beach, a gray sand beach scattered with logs and pebbles. Green, forested slopes descended to the beach  and a tiny island south of the beach sported a photogenic single pine. Waves sweeping off the Pacific crashed against the larger rocks near the waterline on the beach. Arriving shortly after sunrise on a winter day, I had the beach entirely to myself, although if you come later in the day during a warmer season you can almost certainly expect company.

Hidden Beach

Surf off the coast of Hidden Beach

Seastacks at Hidden Beach
After soaking in views of the beach, I backtracked to the Coastal Trail and followed it back north to the junction with the Yurok Loop at 1.5 miles. This time, I took the right fork of the loop and followed it through a forest of Sitka Spruce, descending to parallel the shoreline of Lagoon Pond. At 1.9 miles, I arrived back at the start of the Yurok Loop; turning right here, I retraced my steps from early in the hike back to my car.

This is an enjoyable hike, but perhaps not a highlight of Redwood National Park. While the coastline here is pretty, there are no redwoods along the trail, making this a less distinctive destination when compared to the many other coast access points in Northern California. Still, visitors to Redwood National Park looking for an easy adventure that's a change of pace from the region's great forests will find this a brief but nice seaside diversion.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Founders Grove and Mahan Plaque

Founders Grove at the heart of Humboldt Redwoods
1.5 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Founders Grove lies at the heart of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park, in the alluvial flats along the South Fork Eel River. Here, the straight trunks of coast redwoods soar 350 feet above a floor of redwood sorrel and ferns; the scenery here is especially magical when rays of afternoon sunlight pierce the canopy and light up the rich color of the redwood bark. The most popular route through this spectacular redwood grove is an entirely flat half-mile loop, but a quieter and equally beautiful part of the grove can be seen on an additional half mile spur trail to a plaque commemorating the Mahans, a couple instrumental in saving this grove. Visitors with limited time in Humboldt Redwoods should consider making Founders Grove one of their higher priority stops in this incredible redwood park.

I wandered through Founders Grove during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a four hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento, although it is just 40 minutes driving away from Eureka, the main population center in Humboldt County. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101; to reach the trailhead, leave US 101 at exit 663. Instead of turning at the Avenue of Giants, I went straight onto the road towards Founders Grove and Founders Tree at the end of the freeway off ramp. A hundred meters down this road, I pulled into the parking lot on the left (north) side of the road, where there was room for over 20 cars and a pit toilet. The parking lot was set amidst a glorious old growth redwood forest.

I crossed the road to start the Founders Grove hike on the south side of the road. The wide and flat dirt trail entered the cathedral-like grove, traveling into a magical forestscape of stately trunks with sunlight streaming through the high canopy down to the lush groundcover of ferns and redwood sorrel.

Founders Grove
Within a hundred meters of the trailhead, I came to a split in the trail where the two directions of the loop headed off to the left and right. In the middle, a short boardwalk led to the base of the Founders Tree. A sign at the base of the Founders Tree noted that the tree is 346 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter; the first major limb of the tree does not branch off until 190 feet up the trunk. The Founders Tree was once thought to be the tallest tree in the world until it was dethroned by the Libbey Tree in the 1960s; however, it's possible that this tree was never as tall as the 364 feet that it was claimed to reach during the early 20th century. While certainly a very tall and large tree, it's not necessarily the most impressive of redwoods in the region and or even in this grove. 

Founders Grove- and the Founders Tree- are so named to commemorate the founders of the Save the Redwoods League, an organization that was instrumental in preserving the redwoods of Humboldt County. John Merriam, Madison Grant, and Henry Osborn founded the organization in 1918 after being sent on a fact-finding mission to Humboldt County by Director of the National Park Service Stephen Mather. The three men- all prominent scientists of their day- were in awe of the forests of the North State and realized the threats of encroaching lumber interests, so they founded the Save the Redwoods League as an advocacy organization that could push for the conservation of these old growth forests. The League was successful in saving many of the awe-inspiring old growth forests in Humboldt Redwoods and in today's Redwood National Park, although this still only represents 5% of the total old growth forest that existed when European Americans first arrived in California. 

It's a bit irresponsible to talk about the founders of the Save the Redwoods League without talking about the complex legacy that they left behind. All three made great contributions to the preservation of key American landscapes, but Grant and Osborn also had a more dubious legacy of championing eugenics and scientific racism. Grant, in particular, held views of not just white but "Nordic" supremacy- his writings provided a scientific veneer to the rise of ethnic nationalists in northern Europe, inspiring Adolf Hitler himself. Osborn, in addition to co-founding the Save the Redwoods League, also co-founded the American Eugenics Society in 1922. We should obviously be beyond thankful that the Humboldt Redwoods were saved from the sawmill, but it is necessary when honoring their preservation to remember the sometimes ugly forces involved in achieving it.

Founders Grove
I followed the right fork of the loop at the junction in front of the Founders Tree to hike the Founders Grove Loop in a counterclockwise direction. Beyond the Founders Tree, the forest maintained its utter magic as sunlight streaked through the lofty canopy and painted strokes of color and shadow across these great trees and their green environs.

Redwoods of Founders Grove
About a quarter mile from the trailhead, I came upon a massive fallen trunk: the Dyerville Giant. This was once the largest tree in Dyerville Flat, a redwood titan with a trunk that was 16 feet in diameter; after it fell in 1991, measurements confirmed that it would have been the tallest known living redwood at the time. 

Fallen Dyerville Giant
The trail wrapped around the lengthy trunk of the Dyerville Giant and then came to the marked spur trail for the Mahan Plaque about a third of a mile from the trailhead. Turning right onto this spur trail, I headed deep into some of the most scenic forest of this hike.

Redwoods along the trail to Mahan Plaque
Although there is apparently a loop trail that can lead to Mahan Plaque, I only obviously saw a single path leading to it; the trail winded its way among the great trees until reaching the foot of a hill and then followed the base of the hill to the plaque.

A towering coast redwood
The trail ended at a plaque embedded in a rock, next to the logged stump of an old growth giant. The plaque commemorates Laura and James Mahan, a Eureka couple that were instrumental in the protection of the Humboldt Redwoods and of this grove in particular. Laura Mahan spearheaded an effort for the California Federation of Women's Clubs to buy up redwood forests for preservation. Her best known heroics, though, occurred at the spot marked by this plaque in 1924. In November of that year, she and her husband discovered that the Pacific Lumber Company had begun logging this old growth grove in Dyerville Flat, on land that had been legally protected from logging. While James Mahan sought a court injunction to stop the company's actions, Laura Mahan led a group of women from Eureka who placed themselves between the saws and the redwood giants, delaying the illegal cutting for long enough until Pacific Lumber was forced to back down. Her legacy today is every ancient, soaring redwood trunk of this grove. What will be ours?

Mahan Plaque
From Mahan Plaque, I retraced my steps back to the Founders Grove Loop. I finished up a counterclockwise journey through the loop along the loop's eastern half, traveling through more old growth forest until closing the loop back at the Founders Tree.

Founders Grove is one of Humboldt Redwoods' highlights. While many other groves may be just as beautiful but quieter, every visitor to this part of California should still see this grand forest in Dyerville Flat and reflect on the work done to save it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Garden Club of America Grove

Redwoods near Canoe Creek in Garden Club of America Grove
3 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, some route-finding and bushwhacking necessary
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Garden Club of America Grove is a sprawling section of skyscraping coast redwoods on the west bank of the Eel River in California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The grove is infrequently visited in this otherwise fairly popular park, partially due to its location across the Eel River from the Avenue of the Giants and partially due to the fact that much of the grove is fairly lackluster compared to the more impressive alluvial flat forests along Bull Creek and the east shore of the Eel River. While much of the trail-accessible portions of Garden Club of America Grove are less spectacular than surrounding areas in the Humboldt Redwoods, there is one noteworthy grove of soaring redwoods on the alluvial flat where Canoe Creek flows into the Eel River that is today only reachable via some bushwhacking along a decomissioned trail. Most visitors will find other groves to be easier to access with few of the challenges of visiting the Garden Club of America Grove, but hikers who have spent time in the park already and want to see a secluded and seldom-visited old growth grove may want to consider this hike. 

The Garden Club of America Grove is only accessible during summer months, when a footbridge is erected over the Eel River. In winter, there is no bridge crossing of the river and the water level and current of the river are typically too strong to allow for safe fording. Check before going to make sure that the bridge across the Eel River is up.

To get to the trailhead from Highway 101, take Exit 656 for Myers Flat and then follow the Avenue of the Giants north for just over two miles to the turnoff on the left (west side of the road) for the Garden Club of America Grove parking area. The signage is clear when turning onto the spur road but the signs don't clearly face the Avenue of the Giants, so it is necessary to pay attention on the approach. The turnoff led to a cul-de-sac with ill-defined parking and some picnic tables; I parked here.

The hike to the Garden Club of America Grove started on the west side of the parking area, at the edge of the forest close to the river; a sign at the trailhead points towards the "GCA Grove." The trail started by dropping slightly downhill from the alluvial flat of the forest down to a gravel bar alongside the South Fork Eel River. Following cairns, I headed left (south) upon reaching the gravel bar and reached a seasonal footbridge over the Eel River about a hundred meters from the trailhead. Water levels in the Eel River become much higher in the rainy winter and spring seasons; at those times, the footbridge is removed and the river is impassable, making this hike inaccessible.

Footbridge over the Eel River
I crossed over the bridge, admiring the 300-foot tall towering trees rising above each bank of the Eel River. Once across the bridge, a clear trail led uphill from the gravel bar on the west bank of the river, gaining about a hundred feet of elevation in a brief but steep uphill climb that ended in a junction with the River Trail, which is the main trail running along the South Fork Eel River's west bank.

No signage for the Garden Club of America Grove adorned the signage at the junction with the River Trail, which indicated that Canoe Creek was to the north and the Childrens Forest lay to the south. That's because this entire side of the river is the Garden Club of America Grove: covering such a large area, the disparate parts of the grove thus have uneven scenery quality. While the hike's main destination was the grove at Canoe Creek to the north, I started out the hike by dipping south (heading left at the junction) to visit a pretty grove of medium-sized redwoods just beyond the junction.

Fire-scarred redwoods along the River Trail
The redwoods in this part of the GCA Grove made up the second nicest cluster of redwoods on this hike after the Canoe Creek Grove. Groundcover was sparser than the more famous alluvial flat groves, making this grove a bit browner and barer. Fire scars from the 2003 Canoe Fire on the trunks of the redwoods also contributed to this grove feeling somewhat less lush than the typical Humboldt Redwoods forest. I followed the River Trail for about 200 meters south from the access trail junction, crossing two small wooden bridges as I hiked through the nicest stretch of redwoods here; I turned back when the forest thinned and returned to the junction. 

Redwoods in the first grove near the Eel River crossing
Returning to the junction with the access trail, I then began following the River Trail north towards the redwoods of Canoe Creek Flat. The trail ascended gently through a fairly open forest in this stretch until it rounded a corner into the Canoe Creek watershed and began heading west; the trail contoured on hilly slopes, staying above the forest that filled the alluvial flat below.

Prior to the 2003 Canoe Fire, the River Trail traveled through an impressive old growth alluvial flat grove at the mouth of Canoe Creek, which formed the primary attraction of the Garden Club of America Grove. In the aftermath of the fire, the trail was rerouted to cross Canoe Creek further upstream, detouring around the best stretch of forest. Today, the trail trace down to the Canoe Creek grove has become completely swallowed by vegetation when approached from the south, but the northern approach, while overgrown, can still be followed by hikers with good trail-finding and navigation skills and descends into the heart of the grove.

At a half mile north from the River Trail/GCA Grove access trail junction, the trail dropped steeply into the Canoe Creek alluvial flat, where there was a pretty old-growth stretch of forest; while nice, this was not quite as impressive as the off-trail portion I would visit later.

Redwoods in the alluvial flat near the crossing over Canoe Creek
After crossing the alluvial flat, the River Trail descended to a bridge-assisted crossing over Canoe Creek. The bridge looked similar in construction to the seasonal bridges over the Eel River, so it's likely that this bridge is removed in winter as well.

Seasonal footbridge over Canoe Creek
After crossing Canoe Creek, I followed the River Trail back uphill through about 120 feet of elevation gain as the trail skirted the slopes above Canoe Creek Flat. A mile after leaving the River Trail/GCA Grove access trail junction, I came to another junction: the Grasshopper Trail headed uphill to the left while the River Trail continued straight. Here, an unmarked path to the right led downhill towards Canoe Creek: this was the abandoned trail through Canoe Creek Flat's grove.

I followed the abandoned trail downhill. Despite little use for nearly two decades, the path is still faintly visible and while it is a bit brushy and overgrown with quite a bit of deadfall to climb over, experienced hikers will be able to follow it. The old path led all the way down to the alluvial flat below, where it faded out at the foot of a great old-growth grove.

Canoe Creek redwoods
The redwoods in this alluvial flat were the most spectacular to be found in the Garden Club of America Grove. Here, thick-girthed redwood trunks soared skyward. Redwood sorrel and ferns covered the ground. The understory of the grove was actually not particularly open- many young trees and bushes, including a few redwoods that had only sprouted after the fire, crowded the forest floor. Nonetheless, this small and contained grove was still impressive and beautiful.

Fire scars from the Canoe Fire
The Garden Club of America, a national organization comprised of member garden clubs from around the country, played an integral role in the preservation of the Humboldt Redwoods region. During the Great Depression, the organization raised about a hundred thousand dollars from its members to help the Save the Redwoods League purchase old growth forests in the Eel River watershed to contribute to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. As an expression of gratitude, Save the Redwoods League named a 5000-acre section of old growth forest on the west bank of the Eel River after the club. Grove dedications continue to be a primary strategy through which the Save the Redwoods League is today able to garner large individual contributions.

Soaring redwoods above Canoe Creek alluvial flat
In September 2003, a lightning strike on the west bank of the South Fork Eel River in the Garden of America Grove set off the Canoe Fire, which consumed 10,000 acres of forest in Humboldt Redwoods State Park from the riverbank up to the summit of Grasshopper Peak, the highest point in the park. The fire scorched areas of old growth redwood forest but was particularly brutal on upland forests that were more heavily dotted with Douglas firs. The alluvial flat and riverside redwood forests survived with largely superficial damage, although some trees in the Canoe Creek flat had freshly blackened goosepens reaching fifty feet up that resulted from their heartwood being consumed by fire. 

Canoe Creek redwoods
As redwood forests typically occur in areas too moist to support intense fires, the Canoe Fire was the most major fire to affect an old growth redwood forest in modern California history until the far more intensely destructive CZU Lightning Complex conflagration that torched the redwoods of Big Basin State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains during the summer of 2020. While redwoods do not face the same degree of risk from fire that threatens their giant sequoia cousins in the Sierra Nevada, the Canoe Fire and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire have opened a window into the destruction that fire can have on old growth redwood forests when a century of fire suppression policies are coupled with a warmer and drier climate.

Massive goosepen left by the Canoe Fire
After enjoying the silence of this grove- I did not see any other hikers on this September weekend afternoon after crossing the Eel River- I retraced my steps along the abandoned path uphill to return to the River Trail, which I followed back to the bridge over the Eel. This was a lovely and quiet grove; however, it's not my top recommendation for visitors with limited time in the park. Although more crowded, the Founders Grove and Rockefeller Forest area, as well as the Grieg-French-Bell and Drury-Chaney Groves, are still the top spots to go for an old-growth experience in the Humboldt Redwoods; save the Garden Club of America Grove and its quiet beauty for a second visit.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Rockefeller Loop

Soaring redwood trunks in Rockefeller Forest
0.6 miles loop, 10 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

At the heart of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Rockefeller Forests' coast redwoods- which include some of the tallest trees in the world- grow from the rich soil of an alluvial flat along Bull Creek. The forest is the largest remaining stretch of old growth redwoods that remain on our planet: this easy hike loops through the extremely scenic lower portion of the grove. The understory of this grove is generally open with beautiful blankets of redwood sorrel and occasional ferns; the trees themselves are of massive girth and soaring height, some of the largest redwoods to be found anywhere. This beautiful and easy hike, an absolute highlight of Northern California's Redwood Empire, is just a short distance off of Highway 101, making this a great option for all visitors. 

I hiked the Rockefeller Loop during a January trip to Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park. Humboldt Redwoods is a long way from any major metropolitan area, at over a four hour drive from San Francisco; the closest larger town is Eureka, about 45 minutes to the north. Regardless of which direction you come from, you'll almost certainly be taking Highway 101 to get here. Take Exit 663 for Honeydew/Rockefeller Forest regardless of the direction that you're coming from. If coming northbound, the exit ramp leads to an intersection with the Avenue of the Giants; turn left on the Avenue of the Giants and then follow it north across a bridge over the Eel River and then turn left onto Mattole Road. If exiting southbound from Highway 101, the exit ramp leads directly to Mattole Road, so it's easier to simply turn right onto Mattole Road. Follow Mattole Road for 1.5 miles to a wide right bend in the road; here, turn left onto a narrow road that drops steeply downhill to the trailhead for the Rockefeller Loop. The turnoff markings are not clearly visible from the road and is easy to miss, although once you make the turn there will be signage telling you that you're in the right place. 

The trailhead parking is already in the heart of this tremendous redwood forest. From the parking area, a flat and wide trail led through the redwood sorrel and fern groundcover into the grove, quickly reaching a split in the trail where the two directions of the loop broke off. I hiked the loop clockwise by following the left hand fork at this junction. The loop was a half mile through the shadows of the massive redwoods of the Rockefeller Forest, turning back around after it neared the banks of Bull Creek. There are few obvious landmarks to point out on this hike, as it is generally more of a mood than a collection of specific things to see.

Coast redwoods of Rockefeller Forest
In summer, it is possible to cross Bull Creek via a seasonal bridge and then hike along either the west bank of the Eel River or the south bank of Bull Creek, both less-visited areas with great trees; in winter, however, creek crossing is not possible (or at least extremely inadvisable) without the bridge and those areas of the park are not easily accessible.

Redwood sorrel and great-girthed redwoods

Soaring redwoods
Redwood groves tend to be prettiest when beams of sunlight shine down through the canopy; at the Rockefeller Forest, that means visiting closer to midday. Due to the grove's setting at the foot of steeply rising mountain slopes to the west, the sun is often blocked out of the grove by late afternoon, making the forest darker and gloomier.

Rockefeller Loop
This forest- and this trail- are so named because of John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s financial contribution to secure their protection. In the 1920s, the newly formed Save the Redwoods League was battling to preserve the old growth redwood forests of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties from encroaching logging. In need of financial help to acquire and protect the forest along Bull Creek, they appealed to Rockefeller Jr., the scion of the Standard Oil fortune who had a passion for conservation philanthropy. Rockefeller traveled to Humboldt County and stood in this forest at the confluence of Bull Creek and the Eel River and was sufficiently moved that he donated a million dollars to the cause, the largest of the many contributions that helped save these trees. 

Trail through the redwood sorrel of Rockefeller Forest
With Rockefeller's largesse, Save the Redwoods League acquired the land covering this old growth forest and donated it to the State of California for Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Rockefeller sought no recognition at the time, but later a decision was made to name this largest and perhaps most spectacular of all coast redwood forests after him. His contribution had a significant effect here: 95% of old growth redwood forests present upon the arrival of European Americans in California have since been logged. This one forest makes up nearly ten percent of all remaining acreage of old growth redwood forests today. As a human, John D. Rockefeller has a complicated legacy- his use of force to counter the American labor movement was surely a crime- yet here it is possible to appreciate the actions that he took to save these trees.

Rockefeller Forest
Somewhere in the heart of this loop rises the Paradox Tree, the tallest tree in the Lower Bull Creek Flats region of Rockfeller Forest and the fifth tallest tree in the world at nearly 372 feet; Paradox is so named for being quite thin despite its height. The tree was not marked and there's no way from ground level to distinguish the relative heights of trees that are all fifty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Rockefeller Forest
Towards the end of the loop, the trail passed through a cut in the trunk of an enormous fallen redwood. This tree was at least 12 feet in diameter. Walking through a cut in the fallen tree gave me a better appreciation of the tree's size; it was humbling to look at the thousands of tree rings that had accrued to this giant over the centuries.

Cross-section of a fallen giant
The Rockefeller Loop was not too busy on the day of my visit, but that's most likely because I came on a weekday in January. It is somewhat less well known that the Founders Grove and Big Tree areas in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, both of which are just a short drive from this trailhead; I have seen those other trailheads in a busier state on a summer weekend, although in general this park doesn't get as crowded as popular national parks in the Sierra Nevada or popular weekend hiking destinations around the Bay Area. If you're visiting the Humboldt Redwoods area, this short hike is one that you simply have to do.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Drury-Chaney Grove

Drury-Chaney Grove
2.4 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Located at the far northern end of the Avenue of the Giants, Drury-Chaney Grove lacks the largest trees of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park but makes up for it with some extremely scenic forest scenery. Here, in the alluvial flats of the Eel River, towering redwoods rise over dense carpets of redwood sorrel, one of the most picturesque scenes that one can find among California's many old-growth forests. The short and easy hike through Drury-Chaney Grove is peaceful and remarkably beautiful and has redwood sorrel groundcover that is only matched by the nearby Grieg-Bell-French Grove.

I hiked the Drury-Chaney Grove in September, towards the end of the long summer dry season for the redwoods. Many redwood groves are prettier in spring, when higher moisture helps support more lush groundcover; in groves like Montgomery Woods or Big Hendy, the groundcover is often dead and brown by autumn. However, Drury-Chaney and much of the nearby Humboldt Redwoods stay a lush green throughout the entire year and are thus a great destination in any season.

Drury-Chaney Grove is the northernmost of the redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The forest- and Humboldt Redwoods State Park in general- are quite far from any major metropolitan area, with San Francisco over four hours away; however, the town of Eureka is only a little over a half hour north of the grove on Highway 101. Visitors coming from Eureka will want to exit Highway 101 at Exit 671, which is signed for Redcrest when coming from the north and Pepperwood when coming from the south. After exiting, turn to the northeast (follow signs for Pepperwood) and immediately come to a junction with the Avenue of the Giants; turn left at the Avenue of Giants and head north for a half mile, passing the Grieg-Bell-French Grove. The Drury-Chaney Grove trailhead is on the left (west) side of the road, marked with a signboard; there is room for parking on both sides of the road, with enough space for about ten cars. No restroom is available.

From the road, the true character of the grove is not yet obvious. The trail leads through some smaller deciduous trees before entering the actual redwood grove, where the forest suddenly opened up, with a 300-foot tall canopy supported by great redwood pillars rising out of a dense carpet of redwood sorrel. The understory was not too dense, allowing for long sightlines deep into the grove. This was an extraordinarily scenic grove and its beauty was already fully apparent just a fifty meter walk from the car.

Redwood sorrel carpet in Drury-Chaney Grove
After this spectacular entrance, I followed the trail deeper into the grove. The trail was nearly completely flat, with only a few occasional undulations and one brief and mild uphill stretch. Many side paths cut into the redwood sorrel carpet. As I entered deeper into the grove, the sorrel understory transitioned to a mix of sorrel and ferns, which was somewhat more commonplace and less picturesque than the pure redwood sorrel groundcover but was still very pretty.

Soaring redwoods rising above redwood sorrel and ferns
Ferns came to dominate the understory as the trail crossed by a dirt road and a power line at just over a half mile from the trailhead. Shortly after passing the dirt road, at 0.7 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the start of the loop through the deepest part of the grove. There was no compelling reason to hike the loop in one direction vs the other; I chose to hike it clockwise and started off by heading down the left fork.  

Trail through the fern-coated Drury-Chaney Grove
The loop was lovely though not necessarily distinct from the trail that I followed to reach it; the character of the grove remained largely the same. A few wooden bridges carried the trail across a streambed that would likely have an active, flowing stream in winter and spring, which certainly would have made the grove even more idyllic; however, by September, the streambed was completely dry. 

Redwood sorrel in Drury-Chaney Grove

Drury-Chaney Grove

Soaring redwoods of Drury-Chaney Grove
Today, Drury-Chaney Grove is the first major old-growth redwood grove on the Eel River; however, when the first European Americans arrived in this corner of California, these towering forests stretched down to the coastal plain by Fortuna. Nineteenth century arrivals regarded the forests as a rich source of lumber rather than as sacred arboreal cathedrals; much of these forests were gone by the time the Save the Redwoods League was founded in 1918 to push for the protection of the remaining old growth forests of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. Newton B. Drury was the first president of the organization and led the group's successful drives to push for the establishment of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Drury later became a director of the National Park Service during FDR's long tenure. Despite Drury's best efforts, only 5% of the old growth redwood forests that stood in California at the start of the nineteenth century remain today, the rest victims to the sawmill.

Drury-Chaney Grove
Ralph Chaney, the other man who lends his name to this grove, was a Berkeley paleontologist who made the discovery that even greater redwood forests have been lost on a geological time scale. Today, three redwood species remain: the coast redwood (found in this grove), the giant sequoia (found in the Sierra Nevada), and the dawn redwood (found in Hubei Province, China). Chaney's study of fossilized trees around the world led him to the discovery that various species of redwoods have existed since the Mesozoic Era, making these tree species contemporary with dinosaurs, and that redwoods once had a widespread distribution, found throughout North America and Eurasia. In fact, climatic changes in Europe during the Ice Ages of the Quaternary Period may have been responsible for the trees' extinction in Europe. We live in what is perhaps the dying days of the redwoods: a once mighty family of plants that dominated the world's forests are now restricted to a few patches along the California Coast and the Sierra Nevada, their remnants still threatened with logging and decimated every year by fire in a newly changing climate.

Chaney, after making these incredible but sobering discoveries, also served as a later president of the Save the Redwoods League, which is the more likely reason that the grove today bears his name.

Drury-Chaney Grove
Some of the best redwood sorrel understory came at the end of the loop when traveling in the clockwise direction; there was a brief stretch of forest here that was exceptionally scenic. After closing the loop, I wandered slowly back along the trail that I came up to return to the trailhead. I saw a good number of other hikers on this trail: the opening two hundred yards is especially busy as the grove is so easily accessible from the Avenue of the Giants and comes so early along that drive. However, most visitors turn back before getting to the loop, so the far end of the trail was very quiet.

Carpet of redwood sorrel

Redwood sorrel in Drury-Chaney Grove

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Cheatham Grove

Redwoods rising above the fern understory of Cheatham Grove
0.7 miles loop, 10 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Three hundred-foot tall coast redwoods tower above a lush understory of redwood sorrel and ferns in Cheatham Grove, one of the most beautiful groves of these skyscraping trees in Northern California. Outside of the main tourist circuit of Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Cheatham Grove, which lies within Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park in an alluvial flat on a bend of the Van Duzen River, is far quieter than better known groves while being every bit as beautiful. In fact, Cheatham Grove's forest scenery was so otherworldly that George Lucas filmed scenes of the forest moon of Endor from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi here. The hike through this grove is entirely flat and can be done in a leisurely hour and the trailhead is just a short drive down Highway 36 from the main arterial of Highway 101 along the Northern California coast. 

Cheatham Grove is closer to the Humboldt Redwoods region than Redwood National and State Parks; it is south of Eureka and east of Fortuna. Most visitors will from Highway 101; to reach the grove, exit Highway 101 onto Highway 36 just south of Fortuna (or north of Rio Dell) and follow Highway 36 east for just under 13 miles through Hydesville and Carlotta. Immediately after the first bridge over the Van Duzen River, turn left into a small and easily missable parking lot on the left side of the road with a sign for Owen Cheatham Grove. There are no bathroom facilities at the trailhead, which has a tiny parking area sandwiched between the redwood forest and the river with enough room for only about six or so cars. I visited Cheatham Grove in a September trip to the Humboldt Redwoods region, choosing to focus on redwoods at a time of year when wildfire smoke made most of the alpine hiking in California unpleasant.

The trail into Cheatham Grove leaves the parking lot by the river and drops just slightly downhill into this magnficent grove. The magic of the grove is apparent from the start of the hike: the vertical trunks of stately redwoods appeared like the columns of a great cathedral. The soft mulch tread of the trail cut through a sea of ferns and redwood sorrel covering the ground. The understory of the forest was open enough that faraway trees were visible, but still had enough growth to add more pleasant greenery at eye level.

A few meters into the forest, the trail split at the start of the loop through the grove. I chose to travel counterclockwise through the grove, taking the right fork to start; there's no particular rationale to travel one way or the other.

Trail through redwood sorrel in Cheatham Grove
The right fork cut through the heart of the grove. There were a few truly massive trees here, although overall I found the trees here smaller than the ones in the more famous parks to the north and south; the attraction of this grove is really in the overall beauty of the grove. Owen Cheatham certainly thought so: Cheatham was the founder of the lumber and paper company Georgia-Pacific, which expanded beyond its traditional East Coast holdings to encompass redwood forests in the California by the 1940s. Although Cheatham's company was otherwise engaged in the obliteration of old growth forests, Cheatham was impressed by the beauty of his namesake grove and donated this plot of land to the State of California. It's interesting how many of California's redwood parks are named after the men who spared small patches of forest after being primarily engaged in their destruction: Hendy Woods and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, for instance, have similar histories behind their names.

Verdant Cheatham Grove
The trail looped through the grove, which occupied a wide bend in the Van Duzen River. A few spur trails split off to the sides of the main trail at times and it was sometimes unclear what was the main trail and what was a spur; however, as the grove is quite contained, all spur trails were fairly short and I simply backtracked and took the other fork at the last junction whenever I reached a dead end.

Cheatham Grove
About halfway through the loop, I passed a spot where a thin fallen trunk arched across the forest at just above head height. This spot was immortalized in film history in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, in which a stormtrooper is knocked off his speedbike by this trunk while chasing Luke and Leia. This splendid forest was George Lucas's forest moon of Endor, home of fuzzy Ewoks.

Cheatham Grove
Cheatham Grove is part of the remnant 5% of old growth redwood forests that have survived two centuries after European-American colonization of California. Old growth redwood forests once stretched across the coastal plains near Eureka and Fortuna, but 95% of the old growth redwoods that would have been found here in 1850 have been felled by timber companies. 

Redwoods of Cheatham Grove

Cheatham Grove

Soaring redwoods in Cheatham Grove
One of the most unexpected sights in the grove was a massive, branching maple tree that grew sideways in the middle of the redwoods, with a sprawling footprint and canopy to match. The maple was reached via a short detour path off to the right of the main trail; after checking out the maple, I returned to the main loop and continued counterclockwise and soon found myself at the start of the loop and the end of the hike.

Giant maple in Cheatham Grove
I saw just two other hikers during my morning stroll through Cheatham Grove- granted, I was here shortly after sunrise on a Sunday morning, so most people probably weren't out of bed yet. All in all, I found this grove to be extremely scenic and enjoyed its Star Wars connection; swing by if you have extra time between visiting Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park!